Given the impressive box-office receipts earned by Top Gun: Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Avatar: The Way of Water, one might infer that—nearly three years after the arrival of COVID-19—the movies are back!
Diagnosing the state of the industry, however, isn’t quite so easy, since studios continue to skimp on mainstream theatrical releases (down 33 percent from pre-pandemic times), thereby tilting the balance of pop-culture power toward streaming. How films are distributed and seen remains in constant flux, confounding cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike. The result: a 2022 slate whose finest offerings have, in many cases, flown under the radar.
Nonetheless, if attracting the public’s attention has frequently been a difficult task for tentpoles as well as indies, imports, and documentaries, the year has produced a bounty of stellar offerings, proving that when it comes to artistic daring, invention and expressiveness, the medium remains in excellent health.
In fact, there were more standouts worth celebrating than can fit on this rundown, be it Park Chan-wook’s suspenseful Decision to Leave, Joanna Hogg’s beguiling The Eternal Daughter, Sebastian Meise’s wrenching Great Freedom, Panah Panahi’s stirring Hit the Road, Travis Stevens’ unnerving A Wounded Fawn or Steven Soderbergh’s electric Kimi (to name merely a few).
Those looking for action, adventure, thrills, romance and drama had an enormous collection of challenging and moving features from which to choose. Ultimately, these are our selections for the ten best films of the year.
Michael Bay is the reigning king of orgiastic aggro insanity, and Ambulance is a gluttonous feast of macho posturing, glossy surfaces and maximalist mayhem. The story of a bank heist-turned-car chase through the streets of Los Angeles, Bay’s breakneck action film is a bravura work of anarchic auto-erotic sound and fury that signifies his peerless skill at making explosions, gunfire, and pretty faces into the stuff of dude-bro fantasies.
Led by Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eiza González, it delivers breathless thrills through sensory overload, along the way solidifying Bay’s position as an old-guard director who—in terms of flair, imagination and unbridled excessiveness—remains one step ahead of the modern blockbuster pack.
Where to Watch: Prime Video
Gaspar Noé’s movies are designed to provoke and disturb. With Vortex, he applies his formidable formal skills to arguably his most disquieting subject to date: old age. Told almost entirely in split screen, as a means of highlighting his protagonists’ mounting disconnection, Noé’s film concerns an unnamed elderly couple (Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun) struggling to cope with her dementia.
For 142 virtuoso minutes, the director follows both individuals as they navigate a home, relationship and reality that seems to be slipping away from them, all as they grapple with the anguish, anger and dread that arises from their twilight condition. It’s a bracing vision of the true end times, bolstered by Lebrun’s understated and unforgettable lead turn.
Where to Watch: On-Demand
Baz Luhrmann never met a scene he couldn’t whip into a flashy, glitzy frenzy, and his vibrantly outsized style proves to be an ideal match for the rollicking story of Elvis Presley. Elvis is Luhrmann dialed to 11. Luhrmann’s kaleidoscopic visuals, frenzied montages, and bombastic score (including faithful and remixed versions of the King’s hits) transform Presley’s life into pop myth.
In Luhrmann’s energetically immoderate endeavor, he’s aided by Austin Butler, in a performance that grows weightier, sexier, and more magnetic with every hip shake and pelvis thrust, the actor capturing the artist as both a tormented man and a once-in-a-lifetime icon. Even Tom Hanks’ grotesque Colonel Tom Parker is right at home here, another piece of Luhrmann’s carnivalesque biopic puzzle.
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Benediction may not be the showiest film of the year, but it might just be the most astutely directed. Terence Davies’ biographical drama about celebrated 20th-century British poet Siegfried Sassoon glides evocatively between past and future, elation and rage, hope and despair, its every lovely composition and transition a study in formal eloquence.
Tracing Sassoon’s winding journey from vocal anti-WWI protester to reclusive artist—with numerous homosexual love affairs in between, all of which eventually gave way to a less fulfilling heterosexual marriage and children—Davies treads gently through thorny terrain. Along that path, he’s accompanied by a superlative Jack Lowden as Sassoon, a man for whom indignation and contentment were constant, and perpetually uneasy, bedfellows.
Where to Watch: Hulu
6. No Bears
Jafar Panahi’s final feature before being imprisoned by Iran’s ruling regime, No Bears is an expert extension of the acclaimed writer/director’s recent experimental, politically charged output.
Nominally a story about Panahi trying to make a movie in Turkey via Zoom (because he can’t legally leave his homeland), the film is a cinematic essay in which art and life are incessantly commingling, separating and imitating each other until the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are nearly indistinguishable. Panahi’s heady drama details his personal attempts to literally and creatively wrestle with tyrannical rules and demands, as well as to cross barriers, roadblocks and borders. It’s a masterful, multifaceted snapshot of the need to escape—and, also, to stay and fight.
Where to Watch: In Theaters
5. Return to Seoul
Few 2022 performances were more dazzlingly nuanced than Ji-Min Park’s headlining turn in Davy Chou’s directorial debut Return to Seoul, the tale of a young woman named Freddie who, having been adopted by a French family as a child, visits the country of her birth. There, she strikes up a friendship with a local girl, reconnects with her biological father and, years later, becomes an arms dealer.
It’s a series of events that are complemented by her continual attempts to contact her mother and, more pressing still, to come to grips with her fractured sense of self. Chou’s film is an identity mood piece that’s marked by moments of lyrical poetry, none better than the sight of Freddie shimmying across a dance floor with uninhibited passion.
Where to Watch: In Theaters
For pure, unadulterated heartbreak, nothing this year topped Playground, Belgian director Laura Wandel’s intimate drama about meek seven-year-old Nora’s (Maya Vanderbeque) efforts to save her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) from bullying—a cause that results in conflicting allegiances and intense emotional and physical distress.
Sticking closely to its protagonist throughout her schoolyard ordeal, Wandel’s film is almost unbearably empathetic, affording a piercing knee-high view of a world fraught with contradictions and determined to destroy innocence. Vanderbeque is central to the writer/director’s mission, her face conveying such a complex stew of emotions—fear, guilt, shame, regret and love—that it stands as one of the most accomplished and mesmerizing adolescent performances I’ve ever seen.
Where to Watch: On-Demand
Generational tensions rise from beneath the surface in Murina, director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s enthralling feature debut about the upheaval born from the arrival of an old friend at a family’s Croatian island home. At the center of this brewing tempest is Julija (Gracija Filipovic), a teenager who bears a deep grudge against her father (Leon Lučev) and views his wealthy visiting friend (Cliff Curtis) as a potential savior.
Things, however, are not so simple, or easily resolved, in this gorgeously sunny noir-ish saga. With cinematographer Hélène Louvart rendering this remote locale a place of shimmering, ominous beauty, Murina is an atmospheric wonder, trading in metaphor and malevolence with a light, affecting touch. It heralds the arrival of an inspired new filmmaking voice and, in Filipovic, a budding star.
Where to Watch: Showtime
2. Three Minutes – A Lengthening
A 72-minute non-fiction gem made from a three-minute series of 16mm film clips shot in 1938 in Nasielsk, Poland (whose Jewish population would be largely exterminated by Hitler), Three Minutes – A Lengthening seeks understanding by staring intently into the past. The relationship between seeing and knowing, however, is rife with complications, which are plumbed by director Bianca Stigter (working from Glenn Kurtz’s 2014 book, and with narration courtesy of Helena Bonham Carter) with an insightfulness that still leaves space for unfathomable mystery.
A haunting treatise on tragedy, erasure and the cinema—whose capacity for illumination is inherently limited—Stigter’s documentary is a Holocaust inquiry unlike any other, using home-movie snippets to speak volumes about loss, time, tragedy and remembrance.
Where to Watch: On-Demand
1. The Banshees of Inisherin
On a small island off the coast of civil war-wracked Ireland circa 1923, two friends, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), engage in their own internecine battle in The Banshees of Inisherin, writer/director Martin McDonaugh’s sharply drawn comic-tragic account of a friendship’s end.
A tapestry of grief, resentment and bitterness that soon ensnares Pádraic’s spinster sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and abused delinquent Dominic (Barry Keoghan), McDonaugh’s latest is a personality-rich portrait of desolation, grief and the push-pull between selfishness and kindness. It’s as shattering as it is hilarious, serving as a deft cautionary tale about the poisonous ramifications of casual cruelty. Boasting career-best work from Farrell, Gleeson, Condon and Keoghan, it’s the closest 2022 came to delivering an enduring classic.
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Honorable Mention: Decision to Leave, The Eternal Daughter, Great Freedom, Hit the Road, A Wounded Fawn, The Quiet Girl, All Quiet on the Western Front, Kimi, Men, Living, Flux Gourmet, Happening, Both Sides of the Blade, Blonde, Top Gun: Maverick
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